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A Child Of The Mill

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She had the look of the mill as she stood at the classroom door, too shy to take her eyes away from her tattered shoes. Her long, blond hair was gathered by a rubber band into a thin, dirty ponytail. Her skin was so pale that freckles stood out all over her face, arms, and legs. Her faded dress hung, too large, on her bony shoulders. But more defining than her appearance was her hesitancy. She saw the well-dressed children of the town's banker, doctor, store owners, and teachers, and she knew she was not one of them. Her face shone with fear.

I led her in, seated her near the front, and gave her the student information form the other 6th graders had already begun to complete. As I walked among the children, helping those in need, I glanced at her form--Name: Sharon Bridgers. Father's Occupation: Johnson's Cotton Mill. (The names of people and places used here have been changed.)

That fall of 1965, my first year of teaching, Johnson's Mill was the major employer in our small, Southern town. Three hundred men and women worked 50-hour weeks, then returned to their mill houses with pay envelopes too thin to offer hope.

Most children of Johnson's workers walked to South Hill Elementary, an old, two-story brick building in the middle of a barren lot, three blocks from the mill. My school, Brookside Elementary, served the other side of town, where Sharon's mother had fled to escape her father. During his last drunken binge, she had grabbed Sharon out of bed and run to a friend's small apartment over the dime store on Main Street. Fearing even to work near her husband, Mrs. Bridgers waited tables at the City View Cafe.

It was two months before I learned this. I did not even hear Sharon's voice for more than a week. She stood alone in the schoolyard before the first bell and then silently followed instructions throughout the day. But I was immediately aware of that spark that all teachers live for. Sharon's eyes were always on me, and they shone with joy as she quickly grasped new knowledge. I knew without seeing any test scores that Sharon was special. Reading library books as though she were starving, she had a wealth of background knowledge. She was always first to finish, turning in textbook-perfect work that went well beyond requirements. She had such a need to succeed that any red marks on her papers seemed to crush her.

One afternoon in October, as the children streamed from the room at the close of the day, I noticed Sharon still seated with her science book out. She wanted help, but not with the simple facts of that textbook, which she understood as well as I. I sat beside her and we talked. That was the first of our afternoons together. Sharon washed boards, cleaned cabinets, read, or just talked. She couldn't explain herself except to say that she wanted something better, something other than the life she had. Of course, I encouraged her hopes, her dreams. We talked of scholarships and study abroad, of good-paying jobs and service to mankind. The world opened before our eyes as we dreamed. She could be anything. We both believed.

Then one bitter cold February day, Sharon arrived at school two hours late. She slipped through the door and sat down without a word. I continued our lesson on England, encouraging Sharon to open her text and join us. Although she complied, I saw in her face that something was wrong, terribly wrong. Knowing her shyness, I simply smiled and patted her shoulder. That was when I noticed the bruises.

Instructing the other children to read silently, I beckoned Sharon to the hall. She broke down. Between hysterical sobs I learned that her father had come to their apartment early that morning. He had broken her mother's arm when she tried to keep him away from Sharon. It was only the sound of the police sirens that stopped his rage. They had no choice; they had to get away from him. He would be out of jail in 10 days. Her mother was packing their belongings. Sharon would not be my student anymore.

It rained that afternoon. Sharon cleaned out her desk and then lingered in the classroom as the sky darkened. "Don't forget our dreams, Sharon,'' I whispered as I hugged her. I stood at the window and cried as she walked across the schoolyard that last time.

Two weeks later, I got a letter from Sharon. She had moved 50 miles away and started school. "It's not like your classroom,'' she wrote. "I miss you so much.''

I wrote her back immediately--a long, newsy letter about all her classmates and our trip to the Morehead Planetarium. I closed with, "Don't forget our dreams, Sharon.''

It was almost a month before she responded. They had moved again, this time to another small town nearer by so her mother could get work. Sharon did not mention school at all. Although I again answered her immediately, Sharon never wrote me another letter.

The next fall brought 30 new 6th graders, each with his or her own challenges. Thirty-two more greeted me the next September. Life moves on.

Almost exactly two years after that awful day in February, I heard someone say "hello'' as I picked up a dozen eggs in the grocery store. At first, I didn't recognize the pregnant girl who stood beside a tall, thin young man. The eyes were different, so dull and resigned. Then Sharon smiled and said: "This is my husband. He works in the mill.''

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